Changing behaviors is extremely difficult and stressful for many people. It should not come as a surprise, then, that discord—or conflict—commonly presents itself during the change journey. If a person is feeling stressed about a change, struggling to continue it or feeling pressure from any of a number of people or sources, it may not take much to trigger defensiveness or a snarky response.

For example, a client who is striving to lose weight may be eating less than normal, sleeping poorly and feeling soreness from a fitness program. As a result, he or she may not take well to a poorly delivered but well-meaning comment, such as, “After all this and you still haven’t lost weight. Are you sure you haven’t been eating more than you are telling me?” A health and fitness professional may simply be probing to understand the situation better, but the client may think or possibly say: “You are blaming me for not losing weight, and you think I’m a liar.”

Here’s another example: A health coach who gets irritated after a client is a few minutes late to an appointment (again) might quip, “Late again, huh?” That irritation could spill over into the session and inadvertently evoke even more discord, thus weakening rapport and the relationship.

When discord in a relationship occurs, it is critical to identify and address it early on so that the quality of the working relationship is not compromised. In their book, Motivational Interviewing (2013), authors Bill Miller and Stephen Rollnick provide detailed guidance on how to do this effectively. 

Identifying Discord

The first step to dealing with discord is recognizing it presence as soon as possible.

Discord usually manifests in one of four ways:

  1. Defending. This is when a client begins to deflect blame (“It’s not my fault”), minimizes the situation (“It’s no big deal”) or justifies decisions (“This just makes the most sense”). People become defensive when they feel threatened. If a client begins to defend his or her actions, it is likely he or she feels attacked or threatened.
  1. Squaring off. This is a signal that the client feels like he or she is in an adversarial relationship with the coach. Typically, squaring off statements come in the form of “you” statements, such as: “You don’t understand,” “You don’t know what it’s like to be me” or “You are wrong.”
  1. Interrupting. When a client frequently interrupts, it may be a sign that he or she feels that the trainer or coach is talking too much, does not understand or is not listening. 
  1. Disengagement. Disengagement can be signaled by poor eye contact, distracted behaviors such as looking at a phone or texting, or not participating in the conversation.

Dealing with Discord 

As soon as you become aware that a client is showing signs of discord, it is critical to respond to it immediately. Do this by deploying one or more of the following strategies: 

  • Reflect on what occurred. Use reflective sentences that aim to get to the underlying meaning of what the client is saying or thinking. For example, “You are not feeling like this conversation is helping for you” or “You feel like this is a waste of time.” Remember, the key to effective use of reflections is the tone in which they are delivered. For a review of the effective use of reflections, check out this earlier article in this Coaching Behavior Change series: The Reflection. 
  • Apologize when appropriate. It is important to realize when the delivery or quality of a message was poor or that it prompted discord. An example of a statement acknowledging this could be, “I didn’t mean to lecture you,” “I understand I may have insulted you and I feel terrible about it” or “I’m sorry, I misunderstood.”
  • Affirm the client’s autonomy or positioning. Let the client know you respect his or her independence and freedom of action. A sentence that might help do this could be, “You are best positioned to make this assessment” or “I see now how important this is to you.”
  • Shift the focus away from a sensitive topic, when appropriate. If you sense a client is becoming defensive and the best way to manage it may be to address it later, a sentence such as, “I know this is a tough topic. Perhaps we can return to this topic later” or “Would it be O.K. with you if we focus on a different topic for now?” can help. 

On some occasions, discord may continue despite all of these measures. If this occurs, it may be worth exploring with the client if there is another appropriately skilled professional who may be better able to meet his or her needs. If the client opts to move to a different provider, it is important to offer to help the client identify that person and effectively transition care. 

Adapted from American Council on Exercise (2014). Coaching Behavior Change. San Diego, Calif.: American Council on Exercise.


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